Android’s Fragmentation Mess–and How to Fix It

The next version of Google's mobile operating system looks impressive. But it may not be coming to an Android phone near you any time soon.

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If Android was the world’s only mobile operating system, Day-Old Bread Syndrome might seem like an ugly but unavoidable fact of life. But Android has an arch-rival in Apple’s iOS, the software on the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. So far, Apple has been releasing major iOS upgrades only once a year or less; when it does, you know that all new iPhones will run them, and that they’ll be available for previous models going back several years. This predictability eliminates any vague suspicion that the gadget you’re about to buy already suffers from obsolescence, planned or otherwise.

Apple, of course, has certain advantages over Google and Android phone makers. It writes its own operating system. It only has to test it on a handful of devices it designs itself, not hundreds of gizmos from a bevy of manufacturers. It controls the deployment of new versions rather than letting wireless carriers call the shots. Making everything work isn’t a cakewalk–and glitches aren’t unknown–but it’s a manageable challenge.

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It’s within Google’s power to take charge of the entire Android experience, which would make Apple-like updates possible. After all, the search behemoth is in the process of buying Motorola Mobility, one of the most prominent makers of Android hardware. But it insists that it’s going to go out of its way to operate Motorola as an independent entity that will compete fairly with Samsung and HTC and other manufacturers. If Motorola products get no preferential treatment, they won’t be any more seamlessly integrated with Android. (Me, I’m rooting for Google to break its word and at least try to turn Motorola into an exercise in Apple-like integration of hardware, software, and services.)

As things stand here in the real world, Google needs to design Android to run on devices of all sorts–cheapo phones with dismal specs, big-screen beauties like the RAZR, tablets, TV boxes and more, none of which it designs itself. It deploys software updates through wireless carriers, all of which want to do their own testing and some of which are profoundly conservative about approving anything that might prompt support calls or put their wireless network at risk. With all this in mind, there’s no scenario in which every new version of Google’s operating system could be available immediately for all Android-based products.

The diversity of Android hardware is a virtue as well as a complication–if you’re looking for a particular phone feature, such as a physical keyboard, odds are that one or more Android handsets offer it. Still, I think that the software situation is pretty depressing. More important, I think it’s possible to fix it.

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